Confronting the Horror of Racial Violence in America
Wesley Lowery’s new book looks at what’s exceptional and what’s not about the resurgence of hate-motivated attacks during the Obama and Trump years.
IN THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS for his new book, American Whitelash, Wesley Lowery credits the author, historian, and activist Ibram X. Kendi for making “the crucial suggestion” that he expand his planned focus on white supremacist attacks to include those that were committed during the Obama administration as well as the Trump administration. And so the book begins on November 4, 2008, the day Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for the Washington Post, CBS News, and 60 Minutes, recalls feeling, with some chagrin, that this was “a collective moment of true, unabashed hope.” Obama, in his new role as hopester-in-chief, told a throng of supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park that “America is a place where all things are possible.” Oprah Winfrey gushed, “It feels like there’s a shift in consciousness.” And the New York Times’s front-page story was headlined, “Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.”
And then Lowery lowers the boom:
So, what the hell happened? Because it’s clear, with the benefit of even a decade of historical hindsight, that the election of a black president did not usher us from the shadows of our racist past; rather it led us down a perilous path and into a decade and a half (and counting) of explicit racial thrashing.
Just hours after Obama’s election night address, a church in Springfield, Massachusetts, was set ablaze by three white men who were angry, as one of them told police, that “blacks and Puerto Ricans would now have more rights than whites.” In Staten Island, New York, a group of white teenagers armed with a metal pipe and police baton, drove around beating up black strangers while chanting “Obama.”
Within a week, Lowery notes, hundreds of racist incidents had been reported across the country, including cross burnings in yards. “It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted,” Obama wrote in his first presidential memoir.
There would be many more reminders during the Obama years of the staying power of racism: the police killings of unarmed black males including Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among others; the water crisis in predominantly black Flint, Michigan; the murder of nine black worshipers by a young white supremacist in a South Carolina church; the career-destroying reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s bent knee in silent protest of police violence.
Whatever transformative potential the election of the nation’s first black president may have held, it was not realized. And after eight years of bitterness and GOP obstruction of Obama’s agenda, the American public elected Donald Trump, who, in Lowery’s words, “explicitly played to racial discomfort of the Republican Party’s nearly all-white political base.” He quotes CNN commentator Van Jones on the night Trump was elected, using the term that made its way into the title of his book: “This was a whitelash. It was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president.”
Trump thrust open the door to fresh waves of bigotry: the ban on Muslims entering the country; the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia; the pandemic that devastated many nonwhite communities with unmitigated force because of inequities in health care. And there were shocking new examples of hatred in its purest form, like the white supremacist on a light rail train in Portland who stabbed three men, two fatally, for intervening to stop his harassment of two black women. The perpetrator later told police, “I hope they all die.”
And Trump left office with an ugly reminder of how manufactured grievance could lead to violence. The events of January 6, 2021, which Lowery notes happened the day after Georgia elected its first black and first Jewish U.S. senators, have morphed into ongoing voter suppression efforts and punishment of elected officials who refused to let Trump steal an election. “To date,” he writes, “this conspiratorial movement remains among the most powerful and mobilized forces within American politics.”
The one constant during these two presidencies, as wildly divergent as they otherwise were, is that racism in America was alive and thriving.
LOWERY SAYS THE GOAL of his book is “to put human faces on the relentless cycle of violence that has defined American history—to put flesh and bone on our discussion of white supremacist terror.” He does so by taking a deep dive into six episodes of racial violence from the Obama and Trump years—four during the former and two during the latter—including the 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the 2017 white supremacist marches that turned violent in Charlottesville. All involve pulling at threads of racism that can be found woven throughout the nation’s history.
For instance, in telling the story of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Ecuador who was stabbed to death on the night of November 8, 2008—just four days after Obama’s election—by a gang of teenagers on the prowl for Latinos in Patchogue, New York, Lowery looks at the long history of anti-immigrant sentiment in this nation of immigrants. He goes back to March 1891, when a vigilante mob stormed a jailhouse in New Orleans and lynched eleven Italians accused of being involved in a murder, after some of them were acquitted and before others had even been tried.
The New York Times, in an editorial, derided the victims as “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country.” An article in the Washington Post declared: “Last night a body of cool-headed men, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders, all persons of influence and social standing, quietly met and decided that some action must be taken, and the people’s justice, swift and sure, visited upon those who the jury had neglected to punish.” The president at the time, Teddy Roosevelt, had to say about the bloodshed, in a letter to his sister: “Personally I think it rather a good thing.”
Lowery also explores the 2017 fatal stabbing of Richard Collins III, a black ROTC graduate on the University of Maryland College Park campus, by a white supremacist. He talks to Collins’s father, Rick, who reveals that his own father was shot to death in North Carolina in 1954 after allegedly looking into a neighbor’s window. His killer was set free. The same man lost both a father and a son to racist violence.
It raises the depressing question of whether the two presidencies that Lowery focuses on are really all that exceptional.
Consider Frazier Glenn Miller Jr.’s methodically planned 2014 shooting spree outside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, in which three people were murdered. “I’m an antisemite. I hate goddamn Jews,” he told police afterward. “How many’d I get?” (All three of his victims, it turns out, were Christians, but Miller was still took proud ownership of his crime, given that he also hated “accomplices of the Jews.”)
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Miller was raised to be a racist and an antisemite. He had been a member of the National Socialist Party of America, a Nazi group based in Raleigh, North Carolina, for several years before launching his own group, the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1980. His biases were not shaped by who was president. His whole life was full of hate. He died in prison in 2021.
IBRAM X. KENDI, IN HIS 2016 BOOK Stamped from the Beginning, makes the audacious but compelling argument that racist beliefs do not lead to but result from the ill treatment of black people. He writes: “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto black people.”
Lowery picks up on this thread.
In other words, faced with the reality that black people are mistreated and that those in power benefit from that ongoing mistreatment, it is not only easier but advantageous to blame the black people—to invent an ideological pseudoscience suggesting that black people must be inherently inferior—than it is to take the public policy steps required to correct the inequality.
The logical corollary is that bigotry can be sapped by going after its motive source: mistreatment, including racist violence. And throughout Lowery’s account are scattered signs of progress being made in that area. Killers are tried and convicted, as justice requires. Legislation to require better reporting of hate crimes stalled under Trump but was signed into law in May 2021 by President Joe Biden. Maryland’s hate crime law was expanded in 2020 after it was deemed not applicable to Collins’s killing.
Lowery writes about the Black Lives Matter protests in Missouri after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, and of the “wave of change brought about by sustained activism” that followed. “Thousands of police departments reviewed their use-of-force policies and implemented body camera programs. A series of states, and some departments themselves, began publishing crucial law enforcement data that shed new light on killings by the police and incidents of alleged brutality.”
In 2020, he recounts, Ferguson, Missouri elected its first black mayor and installed its first black chief of police; a protester named Cori Bush defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent for the right to represent Ferguson in Congress. Even with Trump in the White House, change was possible, and in some places, it appeared to be gathering momentum.
But for every gain there is a reminder of how far the nation has still to go before racial equality can be achieved. Lowery talks to Zy Bryant, who, as a 15-year-old black ninth-grader in Charlottesville, pushed for the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a local public park. “Let’s not forget that Robert E. Lee fought for perpetual bondage of slaves and the bigotry of the South that kept most black citizens as slaves and servants for the entirety of their lives,” she wrote in a 2016 petition that also ran as a letter to the editor. In February the following year, the city council voted 3-2 to remove the statue, prompting the epic wave of whitelash that gripped the city in August 2017, when scores of tiki-torch-carrying neo-Nazis took to the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us!”
This event, and Trump’s jaw-dropping response, has often been cited by Joe Biden as the reason he decided to run for president. The question must be asked: Have Biden’s two-and-a-half years in the White House made racism any less pervasive or corrosive? Are we better people now than we were four years ago?
Lowery is not hugely optimistic. “With the 2024 presidential election fast approaching,” he writes, “it seems almost unquestionable that the race will come accompanied by the course, thoughtless rhetoric that plays into the ongoing American Whitelash and ultimately sets off more acts of white racial terror.” He adds: “It would be nice to be able to conclude that we’ve learned a lesson from this era of American Whitelash, but it’s hard to look at the horizon and not see more horrors to come.”
One reason for this is that Americans have done such a poor job of seeing horrors in the rearview mirror.